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Friday, September 23, 2005

DOT needs to listen to local officials

I drove Whitewater’s new Highway 12 bypass Wednesday morning to see for myself the stretch of road that has seen two fatal accidents in recent weeks.

The new bypass has been the source of a great deal of concern and conversation around Walworth County ever since it opened.

Nearly everyone from Whitewater whom I’ve talked to in recent weeks has commented how disorienting it is to cross the new road, and it was easy to tell who the local drivers were Wednesday morning as they approached the Highway 89 intersection.

All of the cars in front of me began to slow way down as they approached the slight rise in the road before the intersection.

I suspect they were being as cautious as I was.

Passing the intersection, you could see that construction crews were already on hand making improvements.
But for Kimberly Morris, a UW-W freshman who died Sept. 8 at the Highway 89 intersection, and Michael. M. Kennett, of Lake Bluff, who died a week ago Friday at the Highway P intersection, those changes won’t come soon enough.

Among those who expressed concern over the new bypass was Ron Fero, Whitewater’s town chairman.
Fero says the town board lobbied for a bridge at that intersection from the very beginning, but with no success. At least, he says, they should have installed lights. In our story last Sunday on the bypass, Fero said, “We begged the DOT. We literally pleaded for lights.”

A fair question to ask is why local officials and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds on this during the planning stages.

It takes many years to plan a project of this magnitude, and the DOT has sophisticated resources to analyze traffic flows and research safety options.

There’s no reason that by the time officials arrive to cut the ribbon, there’s still disagreement on design.
Perhaps the lesson in this fiasco is that local input and concerns need to get a fair hearing and higher priority early on in the decision-making process of future transportation projects.
There needs to be a better process to address and resolve local concerns.
That’s not to say the DOT is unresponsive to local concerns.

For example, in June of 2003, the intersection of highways J and 20 near East Troy was one of the county’s deadliest. That’s when two new stop signs were installed at the urging of former Walworth County Board Supervisor Dell Gigante, making the intersection a four-way stop.

There had been six fatalities in the six years prior. Since the signs were installed there have been none, according to DOT regional traffic safety engineer Chris Quesnell.

More recently, lights have been installed at the intersection of highways 12/67 and Potters Road north of Elkhorn—until then Walworth County’s most dangerous intersection.

And the DOT was quick to install temporary signs and begin work on changing the configuration of the intersections as soon as it became evident there were serious safety issues.

But the reactive nature of addressing safety concerns puts too many motorists at risk.

Improved dialogue and responsiveness to local concerns need to be a part of the process from early on.
In the meantime, there’s practically no way into Whitewater from the rest of Walworth County without encountering Highway 12.

So just remember, there’s no way to be too cautious.

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